Report on the 2011 World Humanist Congress in Oslo, Norway

By Susan Sackett

Three weeks after a deranged mass murderer killed 70 people in Norway, the citizens of this peace-loving nation are still quietly grieving. I arrived in this incredibly beautiful country expecting to find tears flowing from everyone’s eyes. Instead, I was amazed by the way the Norwegian people were going about their daily lives with true Nordic stoicism. The streets of Oslo have been cleared of rubble and repairs are well underway.  Life, peaceful life, goes on.

Ironically, the theme of the 2011 World Humanist Congress, hosted by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), was “Humanism and Peace.” Added to this was the fact that the Oslo Congress Center was only a few blocks from the scene of the downtown explosion. This conference on peace couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.

My first meeting was on Thursday, August 11, with my attendance at the IHEU General Assembly (GA) as the representative for the American Humanist Association. As we went around the table introducing ourselves and identifying the organizations we represented, I was delighted to see so many delegates from around the globe. There were humanist leaders from many countries: Norway, of course, UK, Germany, Netherlands, France, Belgium, Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland, Romania, Australia and Uganda. Also present were dozens of observers. This was truly a well-represented GA.

IHEU President Sonja Eggerickx welcomed everyone and we got right down to business. One of the first items on the agenda was whether or not to grant full membership to the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF), an organization whose president, Jason Torpy, is also treasurer of the AHA.  The GA approved MAAF’s full membership.

There was a lengthy discussion on an amendment to the IHEU’s bylaws. In an attempt to be more inclusive, the proposed wording was to be changed so that “non-theistic” and “non-religious” groups may join. A lively debate ensued, with no resolution. It was interesting to see that the question of “what is humanism” is still being debated!

Friday was the first official day of the Congress. Everyone was captivated by the opening ceremonies, which included welcoming speeches and a moment of silence for the victims of the recent tragedy. This was followed by a wonderful musical performance by an Oslo orchestra and the Norwegian Humanist Association chorus. With over 78,000 members of the world’s largest humanist organization, they have their own chorus and conductor!

A highlight was a personal greeting by Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon. He spoke about the appropriateness of the Congress’s theme in light of the recent sad events. He certainly seemed comfortable speaking to the over 400 humanists in attendance!

Over the next few days, we were treated to outstanding talks by a variety of well-known speakers. It was my privilege to host Saturday afternoon’s track on “Man – A Peaceful Animal?” I introduced P.Z. Myers, AHA Humanist of the Year for 2009, and later Judith Hand (who spoke at the 2011 AHA conference in Boston).

There were so many highlights, it’s hard to pick just one: the reception by the City of Oslo at the City Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize is given out each year; the dinner for presenters that followed at the nearby Nobel Peace Center; another dinner at the impressive Oslo Opera House, and finally a meeting for those of us on the Executive Committee at the home of IHEU’s first vice president, Roar Johnsen. 

With events officially concluded Sunday night, it was time to return to the General Assembly meeting on Monday morning. Several resolutions were passed, including the one backed by MAAF stating that humanist chaplains should be readily available to anyone in the military. During the GA, I was officially confirmed as the newest member of the Executive Committee. Mel Lipman, former AHA president, has now retired from his position on the Executive Committee, and I know I will have a hard time filling his shoes.

I bid farewell to my new colleagues, until our next Executive Committee meeting this October, in Oxford, England. As I boarded my plane, I was filled with a sense of awe at all I had experienced in beautiful Norway. The Congress had ended all too quickly, but it confirmed my growing understanding that humanism is on the rise worldwide.

Susan Sackett is secretary of the American Humanist Association and past president of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix. She was a former assistant to the late Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) and has written ten books.